Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Muddy Paddling Pool (Or, Joy in Small, Green, Turtle-Shaped Things)

Two days ago, our neighbors brought us a green paddling pool that is in the shape of a turtle--complete with removable shell and all. It now sits in our backyard (sleeping, of course, since it's 10pm and good rest is highly essential for a long day of being paddled in) awaiting Tyler's pitter-pattering, muddy feet tomorrow.

The heat wave--if it's even possible to have a heat-wave in England in April--broke yesterday. The sun didn't come out from behind his curtains, and I even wore a windbreaker outside. But during the two weeks prior to yesterday, all I could write at the top of my daily journal entries was "HOT" in the space where I record the weather.

Okay--true: it wasn't Florida-hot or even Carolinas-hot. But with was hot for me, which means we had temps in the high 70s with really, really, supremely bright sunshine and no cloud cover.

Perhaps it wasn't the actual temp and sunshine that made me crave the shady spaces underneath large trees, but rather the continual shock of actually seeing the sun so consistently and feeling it so relentlessly that tricked my mind.

One day, on a walk into the city center, I said to Jen, "Whew, it's really hot out here, isn't it? I don't think I could ever live in a warm climate." And then I wiped my forehead even though I was not sweating.

Again--I'm chalking this comment up to the mind-tricking shock thing.

Jen looked at me as if I had grown a large finger off the end of my nose and said, "You're kidding, right?"

And it wasn't until she said it that I realized, yup, I was.

Somehow, we managed to make it through the heat-wave and get back to our normal rain-threatening-cloud-cover-do-we-take-the-laundry-in-or-live-risking-it-all weather for York. But those two glorious weeks of constant sunshine and heat had their climax in, yes, the Green Turtle-Shaped Paddling Pool.

See, it is quite small. And it's also, essentially, plastic. (Actually, it is plastic.) But it has brought untold delight to our lives.

Yesterday, we did nothing but sit in our lawn chair furniture, soaking our feet in the Turtle and watching Tyler create mud for the first time in his life. (Mud! The best invention ever for a toddler! HOURS of joy and possibility unfold.)

Tyler proceeded to use water from the Turtle to water the pricker bushes, the grass, the flowers, and even the mud.

As Jen and I sat with our feet hanging in the Turtle, drinking an orange smoothie out of wine glasses, it was one of those moments that felt as though it just couldn't get any better.

And then our neighbors brought over a trampoline.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The "It" That "It's" All About

Rather an auspicious title. I know.

The nerve to render language to such a title! After all, our greatest poets claim that "it" simply can't be said. A.E. Housman once quipped, "Poetry is not the thing said, but a way of saying it." Frost told us that poetry is "words that become deeds" -- language that translates into action because we simply do not have more words to express what the "it" of words is, in the first place. Eliot--well, most everybody doesn't have much of a clue as to exactly what Eliot meant, though it's an art in itself to decipher his "it" and to come up with increasingly more ornate and complex language to describe what is already ornate and complex in its original inception.


So, then, what is the "it"? What does this mundane blog post really want to claim?

First, let me say I agree with the poets: there are some things in life deeper than language, things that we cannot begin to hold in our hands because they're too inflamed, too deeply real and, more colloquially, devoid of crap.

The things that are devoid of crap don't lend themselves to sitting on some mantle somewhere so we can look at them and remark, Ah! Yes, indeed, the shading there does suggest a bit of nuance.

But another poet made a rather stark and fairly blunt statement of "it." And the "it" this poet articulated has driven the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, John Wesley, William Wilberforce, and others who have radically altered everything about what we previously thought possible.

The "it" the great poet claimed was: love God; love your neighbor. With everything. All you've got.

No insurance policy on this kind of love.

No receipt for return of transaction.

No helmet, life preserver, or bulletproof vest.

No back-up plan.

No allowing logic--which Marx called the "money of the mind"--to trump compassion.

No glance to self-benefit, interest rate on giving, APY.

In essence, the love that Jesus preaches is exactly the love with which he lived. That's why Gandhi viewed him as a model. That's why King believed it could be done on this earth. That's why Mother Teresa could live in the slums and wipe the sores of lepers for her entire adult life.

It wasn't because any of these individuals possessed any greater human capacity than you or I. It was, entirely, because each allowed the relentless, unconditional driving force of love to be more important than self.

Conditional love is everywhere we look.

In the middle and high schools where I taught, conditional love is an ever-present reality: look a certain way, speak a certain way, think a certain way.

But I think we all like to play a game: the game is call Once High School is Over We All Grow Up and Become Mature and Act Better. The truth is, I think we operate with the same kinds of conditional love that we became experts at wielding in our schools.

I recently wrote a book called How to Survive Middle School (Without Becoming an Advertisement or Losing Your Inner Voice), and what struck me as I wrote it was this thought: everything in here could just as well be applied to thirty-year-olds.

But I was writing for my 7th graders. I was writing to address all the fears, insecurities, petty competitions, jealousies, and cravings for unconditional love that they felt. So, something doesn't change in us. Some deep need that we all possess doesn't get fed, and therefore what we have to offer others is always and necessarily conditional.

And that is not what it's all about.

It's hard for us to image what unconditional love even looks like, so trained are we in the arts of acting to gain approval of others and living to prevent disapproval. But unconditional love, perhaps, can best be summed up in this pithy gauge: if you earned it, then it isn't unconditional.

If in any way you earned the praise you're getting, then it isn't unconditional.

If your performance, your words, your actions, your decisions, caused feelings of warmth to seep from other human beings to you, then it isn't unconditional love.

Because as soon as you stop making the [all-star-slam-dunk-rock-this-party-live] movements in your life, so stops the love. And if we really think about it, that's an incredibly depressing and demeaning and degrading way to live: nothing is for certain. We can count on nothing. Nothing remains. Everything is always and necessarily a crapshoot in the cosmic game of love-attempt.

Everything becomes a rolling of the dice to see if our numbers reveal that we'll be able to receive some love this turn around.

And if that's all we ever had as models of the possible on this earth, then that would be all well and good. We could straighten our ties, shift our dresses, and get on with life, heads dirt-bent and ready to work to earn as much love as we could before we kicked the bucket and slowly became the dirt that the next slogger would work until he, too, kicked a similar bucket.

But we've seen something different.

We've glimpsed other possibilities.

We've watched the way Jesus did this thing called life, and as scientists tell us, all you need is one instance where the theory doesn't hold, and the law is broken. It can't be a law anymore. Gravity can't be gravity unless all physical objects obey it.

If a rock just started floating upwards to the sky, then we'd be forced (or, rather, much smarter people with a trail of letters following their names would be forced) to come up with a new law because Gravity's turn would be done.

So, if Jesus broke and breaks the Law of Conditional Love, then it can't really be a law.

Furthermore, if Gandhi can look at the life of Christ and proceed to break the Law of Conditional Love, then it takes another serious knock. When King comes along, followed by Mother Teresa, and a host of others...well, the Law of Conditional (or Marketplace) Love starts to look fairly shabby. It doesn't hold up as a law, a scientific theory, or even a good bet anymore.

So. The "it" then.

Unconditional love. Love that we can't earn. Love that results not because of the work we do, the way we make another feel, or the cha-ching we gather like squirrels.

Few things strike us as strange, as rare, or as dang hard to classify as Unconditional Love. Maybe that's why, when we see it, we innately and suddenly know it to be, indeed, the "it" that "it's" all about.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Typing with Unbearable Loudness

I finally realized it three weeks ago, when I sat typing away in the upstairs room at Central York Library: I am loud.

With most things in life, I am a loud person. I eat loudly (just ask my wife, who must endure my practice of machine-level cereal chomping every night after dinner is through); I speak loudly; I laugh loudly; I perform other certain things done on the potty loudly. And, as an elderly white-haired woman sitting at the computer next to me confirmed at the library, I certainly type loudly.

I am not sure why, but I can't seem to help or change it. Currently, I type these words in a computer lab at the library on the University of York campus. As I look up, I see approximately a dozen other people typing, and it befuddles me how they have come to possess such a marvelous skill as typing softly.

They are all typing things.

Right now.

I can see them.

But the thing is that I can't hear them typing.  And when I stop typing, the room assumes a calm, peaceful ambiance of a work-atmosphere imbued with learning, growth, and knowledge.

When I begin pounding the letters on this keyboard again, the steam engine cranks up, the demolition team carries forth, and the noise level shoots through the roof.

The elderly lady who confronted me three weeks ago over my disorder of Unbearable Loudness in Typing (ULT) was quite kind. She smiled, and she even put it to me as a question: "Excuse me, young man, do you realize that you are making quite a lot of noise as you type?"

To which I could only reply, as kindly as possible, "Yes, but I don't know how to type quietly."

She then smiled--a bit less kindly--and returned to the work on her computer screen. Meanwhile, I closed my document and brought up the New York Times webpage in an attempt to salvage my elderly friend's computer time by reading rather than writing.

I am unsure if anyone else has this problem, and if so, I'd be honored to hear of any solutions. Thus far, the only one I can manage is to type unbelievably slow. Painfully slow, really.

Which, perhaps, is a solution in itself: eat slower, write slower, live slower, type slower. I'll give it a shot and see how it goes. If it's successful, maybe I'll be able to locate my library pal and sit alongside her with my head held high and my dignity entact, typing lines that she cannot hear.

On Finishing

Finish. To finish. Finishing. The more I type and say this word, the more I think of a Finnish man pulling a large trout out of the water, which is an immensely gross and biased interpretation of what Finnish men (or women) actually do. (Please feel free to enlighten me, any Finnish readers!)

But the word is now rumbling around in my brain since I just put the last touches on a manuscript and sent it off to Teachers College Press. A Call to Creativity: Writing, Reading, and Growing with Students in an Age of Standardization (working title) is a manuscript whose pages are filled with all that my students taught me, and so many of the goofy, silly, meaningful, growing, and (yes) weird experiences we forged through together.

And in finishing (at least until the major revisions come back from the editor), there is a certain feeling of lightness, of hope, of belief that maybe something in the book will connect with other teachers who will then use the material with their own students (who will hopefully connect with something, who will then...). In a stage like this--where a manuscript is semi-finished and nothing more can be done until revisions arrive--the room for hope and possibility is large.

It's like arriving at a buffet and looking at the massive table of food while feeling one's tummy groan in gleeful anticipation. Or it's like looking out at a large field before you decide to run wildly across it, pretending first to be an ogre, second to be a superhero, and third to be yourself, strangest of all. Or it's like drinking a very tall glass of water and then putting the glass down on the table in front of you and watching the tiny drops that fall back down the sides.

Finishing feels good. Certainly.

But the learning curve I'm on lately admonishes me to not focus too much on finishing. The character arc in which I find myself in this chapter of life has me headed towards: Focus on delighting in the present, in the journey of the work, the play, the complexity, the hope, the possiblity rather than the finishing of something.

And this is especially difficult for me because I absolutely love finishing. I love getting to the end of something and embraces that feeling of satisfaction that arrives. (Cut to scene: Satisfaction and I run towards one another on a beach, lit by the setting sun, while a powerful yet not too intense instrumental piece comes on background; a lone seagull shoots across the wavering waves of sun-heat; Satisfaction and I embrace.)

But I am seeing more and more that Satisfaction doesn't often linger long. Even though I try to persuade Satisfaction to hang out longer, offering him a cup of coffee, some green seedless grapes, or some yellow construction paper, he always makes some excuse and says he must be on his way.

And then finishing doesn't feel so good. Then, finishing feels more like leaving the buffet, feeling far too full and wondering why you went up for that last plate of green Jell-O. Or it feels like tripping over an unseen mound of dirt hidden by the tall grass of the field through which you were so movie-esquely running. Or it feels like inquenchable thirst even after that tall glass of water.

Once Satisfaction departs, the old longing to finish something else arrives. That inexhaustable voice of What Now?

So into this realm of finishing-related-emotions-and-thoughts, I was deeply grateful for the interruption of Dallas Willard. Not the writer himself, of course (though that would indeed be fantastically cool to receive a call from a great writer who began our phone conversation by uttering, "Hey, Luke, I just thought of calling you because I wondered if one of my ideas might offer you some food for thought in this character arc of your current journey...").

But Willard spoke nonetheless thorugh his volume, Revolution of Character. In an insightful chapter entitled, "Educating Our Emotions," Willard offers the insight that pleasure is fleeting; satusfaction arrives and is connected only to specific events, actions, or circumstances. As soon as those circumstances change, said pleasure and satisfaction changes, too. (Read: finishing!)

However, Willard continues, joy is something much more definite, much more associated with perception and permanency than with circumstances and situations. Joy is characterized as the choice to see the good. To see the good. Love, then, becomes the decision to act for the good of another outside yourself. (Whoa! I'm just trying to get beyond the circumstantial satisfaction of finishing, and here you are bringing up LOVE?!)

Joy doesn't fluctuate. Its life is more like the trunk of the tree than its leaves. Seasons come and go, but that stable body looks the same no matter how much snow or sun surrounds it.

When I watch my son Tyler, I see something of joy in him. Beyond the momentary and characteristic toddler tantrums (which, I am learning are indeed an important part of human-being growth, thank you to Mike Dunn!), Tyler displays an uncaany abillity to not care in the least about finishing something.

If Tyler is digging in the soil, he doesn't remark how good it will feel when all of the soil is finally dug up and he can go inside and sit at the kitchen table with a nice, cool drink.

If Tyler is cutting paper (as Jen has so expertly taught him to do), he doesn't discuss how wonderful it will be to finally cut all of the paper stocked in our entire home so that he can finally be done cutting paper and instead sit down and kick up his feet.

Finishing means nothing to my toddler. Not a thing. (Including such items as Finish your dinner! and Let's finish changing your poopie diaper before you jump on the bed!)

So, as I sit here having sent off my manuscript to the press, I'll conscientiously work to not feel too good about simply finishing it. Instead, I'll be trying to see this state as a step along the journey towards seeing what is good. A step in the journey of joy. And, God willing, this is how I'll respond tonight should Tyler wake up at two a.m. screaming because of a nightmare, or gas pains, or growing pains, or any number of other indecipherable reasons why a toddler wakes at two in the morning.

But I'm not finished with my need to work on re-defining finishing. Not by a long shot.

And hey, maybe that's a good thing after all.

Monday, April 11, 2011


The word early has become something of a trickster to me. One of those manipulative kinds of people who constantly make you guess what they're really thinking yet never let on that--even if you guess right--you are any closer to deciphering where they are, in fact, really thinking.

Early used to be a straight shooter with me.

Twelve years ago, in college, Early and I had a very normal, healthy, clearly-defined relationship. I had an eight a.m. class one semester. Early was forthright with me. He said to me, "Yeah, man, that's me. That's Early, alright."

When I began teaching English at the high school level, Early was still striaght with me. I never had to guess what he was thinking. He told me, on the very first day of teaching while I walked fake-confidently into the classroom with sweaty palms and an itchy belly button, "Yeah, man, I'm back. Seven-thirty is me, Early."

But lately, in Life with Toddler, Early has thrown me for a loop. He started off decent, telling me, "Yup, I'm back, buddy. Six-thirty in the morning is certainly me, Early."

But then, my beloved son started waking at five-thirty. Then five. Then (and I wouldn't kid about something so deeply meanigful as sleep) four-thirty.


And Early just plain stopped talking to me. As if I had somehow offended him. As if I had somehow jeopordized our previously clear, straight-forward, delightfully honest relationship.

Now, I was left a bit clueless as to where Early was, and whether or not he was in league with one of his friends, Ludicrously Early, to try and get a rise out of me.

Thankfully, in the last couple of weeks, Ludicrously Early has relaxed a bit, and Tyler has been sleeping in late again.

Or, rather, perhpas I should say that Tyler has been sleeping in early again. That clear, straightforward kind of Early that sounds like seven.

And I have never been more thankful to get up at seven.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


It seems like the word should be the name of a cologne, or a perfume, or a mixture of both. Defiance: the new smell for men and women who like to live defying everything, and for men and women who like to live defying defiance, even. From Calvin Klein. And from Other Famous People who Create Smells that are Encapsulated with One Word Nouns with Super-Strong Ties to Verbs.

But no.

I must defy that possibility of today's theme. Defiance, I am learning, is instead the name of the game when raising a toddler. Tyler is now just about 2 and 1/2 years old, and Defiance has emerged in all its glorious, confusing, hair-raising, skin-tingling, tear-producing manifestations.

And I will confess: I wasn't ready for it.

I was still patting myself on the back a bit for a semi-smooth switch to stay-at-home parenting and writing instead of making my way into the public school each day to work with my lovely seventh graders. I missed teaching--yes, deeply--but I was ecstatic to have such intense time with our son. To watch him laugh, smile, dig, point out uptrucks, point out colors, point out people, point out people's hair, and point our people's various, multi-colored shoes.

Enter Defiance.

Where our days once progressed with ease and the (only) occasional refusal to comply, they now progress with multiple battles proceeding in ever-more-embittered struggles for power. Where once the marvelous technique of distraction could be employed to swiftly overcome most any problem--Oh, you wanted to wear a diaper on your head? Hey, look at that dog walking down the sidewalk, let's go see it!--now Distraction has been bypassed for, yup, Definance.

Then: Oh, you want to eat lollipops for dinner? Hey, check out all this ketchup we can put on your Veggie Nuggets! Whoa, Dude! Ketchup everywhere, quick, eat the Veggie Nuggets before they drown in ketchup! [Problem solved]

Now: Oh, you want to wear the same Thomas the Tank Engine shirt that you have been wearing for two days straight and which is now covered in a mixture of dirt, various sauces, mucus, and pesto? Hey, check out this SUPER cool Bob the Builder shirt you can wear instead! No? Really, no? You sure you don't want to wear this BOB THE BUILDER SHIRT while I pick you up and swing you around while I sing the theme song for BOB THE BUILDER and then jump up and down pretending to be a kangaroo who is looking for lollipops in the MAGICAL FOREST?



Did you hear all the things I said?

And so, Defiance has entered the game. It was a late substitution, as I honestly thought we were going to skate through the toddler stage with our greatest difficulty being a few borken bananas here and there that we could not glue together.

But then the buzzer sounded, and the opposing team put in the sub from the end of the bench. He's a little guy, but the thing is that he's that kind of player who will dive for loose balls, smash his head into the bleachers to keep the basketball in bounds, and toss up a shot from half-court to send the game into overtime (and swish it.)

Defiance is a scrappy player.

And he lets nothing pass, no matter how small.

You want to take a bath?


You want to take a shower?


You want to take a bath and shower at THE SAME TIME? SO COOL! RIGHT?


All the parenting books I have been reading (and there are a lot of them out there) tell me this is completely normal. They say that every toddler has to pass through this stage where they want independence but they don't really want it, no, yes they do want it, no, actually, they don't. No, yes, they do. I mean they don't.

The books assure Jen and I that this stage will pass, and that the important thing is to remain calm, to be firm but loving, and to try not to make a big deal over small things--to let go of the battles that really aren't that important. The books tell us that not fighting your toddler over every little thing will help the stage pass more quickly, and things will begin, again, to resemble that peaceful euphoria for which I had been on my kness praising God.

So, My List of Things of Late That We Have Chosen to Not Fight:

1. Spaghetti sauce in the hair (What's the worst that could happen? It will come out in the bath, later, right?)
2. Spaghetti sauce in the nose (Hey, maybe it smells good)
3. Granola Bars (Cranola Bar! I want one Cranola Bar! Hey, there's some good protein and carbs in those things, right? So, logic goes to figure that TWO or THREE of those things will have twice as many good carbs and protein...right?)
4. Clothes (Okay, you want to wear pyjamas all day? Fine. On second thought, I'll join you.)

My List of Things That We Have Chosen to Fight For:

1. Sleep
2. Sleep
3. Sleep
4. Sleep

I now take a breath, dive into some more reading in Toddler Taming by Dr. Christopher Green, and I will continue to hope that memorizing 1 Corinthians 13 (the "Love" chapter) will help sustain a calm but firm stance amidst this new stage.

(And I'll also be hoping that Defiance soon becomes a cologne. Or perfume. Or a mixture of both.)